Francesco F. Milan

ISN Insights – Turkey Battles Resurgent PKK

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The original version of this analysis can be found on the ISN website 

2010 was an annus horribilis for Turkey’s domestic security, with PKK attacks reaching levels thought to have long since subsided in the 26-year long conflict that has dogged southeastern Turkey. Last year highlighted PKK’s ability to improve its tactical skills, while Turkish military forces struggled to keep pace.

By Francesco F Milan for ISN Insights


Last year, about 90 Turkish soldiers and dozens of civilians died in attacks carried out by the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), a separatist group labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and EU. Currently based in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, and estimated to number around 2,000, PKK militants have used a variety of tactics to attack Turkish forces: After re-entering Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan, they have engaged Turkish troops deployed to the southeastern region of the country with attacks on military outposts and barracks or ambushes on patrol units. The single deadliest PKK attack on the military took place in the Hakkari province in June, killing 10 Turkish soldiers. But PKK also hit more central areas, especially Istanbul, which suffered three bombings last year: In one June attack, a roadside bomb killed four soldiers and a civilian traveling on a bus.

Tactical evolution: PKK changes it up 

Indeed, PKK performed dreadfully well in 2010. The group’s tactical successes were on display during a late May attack against the Iskenderun naval base: located on the Mediterranean Sea, about 50 kilometers from the Syrian border, the base is hundreds of kilometers away from traditional PKK insertion and extraction routes. Both the tactics (a rocket assault) and target (a naval base) were unexpected and new.

PKK also demonstrated a growing familiarity with the preparation and use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs): At least a dozen IED attacks, carried out mainly in the border provinces of Hakkari and Şırnak, killed 10 soldiers; given the diffusion of IEDs in the Iraqi conflict, PKK’s increased knowledge about, and reliance on, them come as no surprise. PKK leadership denied responsibility for an IED attack in the Hakkari province that killed nine civilians in September, claiming they were committed to a unilateral ceasefire in place at the time: Nevertheless, the incident led tospeculation that those responsible for the attack were members of the Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK), a parallel militia group opposing any ceasefire or dialogue with Turkish authorities.

As for targets, PKK raised the stakes by attacking strategic infrastructures such as gas and oil pipelines. The first attack of this kind was carried out in July in the southeastern province of Mardin, causing minor damages to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries crude oil from Iraq to Turkey. A few weeks later, the Tabriz-Ankara pipeline, which transports natural gas from Iran to Turkey, was attacked by PKK in the Ağrı province, shutting it down for a week. The same pipelines were attacked for a second time in August: The second-round sabotage in Mardin province killed two people, while the attack on the gas pipeline in Ağrı province forced authorities to shut it down for a few days.

PKK’s objectives may have been to cast a shadow on Turkish efforts to become an energy hub within the EU-funded Nabucco project. Moreover, these attacks are likely to raise serious security concerns, given Turkey’s plan to develop nuclear technology and run nuclear plants on its own soil.

Turkish military response: More cooperation, more operations

In response to increased PKK attacks, Turkey has sought to enhance security cooperation with other countries, and to obtain as many Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets as possible from the US. In several bi- and multi-lateralmeetings, top-level US government representatives showed their support for Turkish efforts against PKK, and advocated for a higher degree of diplomatic engagement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the meantime, police cooperation with EU countries led to several major operations against PKK members operating in European countries: in March, Belgian police arrested 30 members of the group; in July the Italian police arrested a group of Turkish citizens accused of being PKK recruiters; in August, Danish prosecutors accused Roj TV, a Kurdish-language television channel broadcasting in several European countries, of being a megaphone for PKK propaganda; while in December six more members were arrested in France.

Enhanced security cooperation is essential to ongoing military operations against PKK: In a well-established pattern, retaliatory air strikes on PKK facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan come after major attacks on Turkish troops, and in the last few years, the period between March and October has witnessed joint land-air military operations in southeastern Turkey. However, military operations carried out by the Turkish military in previous years did not keep PKK from conducting an extensive number of ambushes and attacks in 2010, calling the effectiveness of these military operations into question.

The debate about whether or not to employ professional soldiers instead of relying mainly on conscripts also re-emerged: As of 2010, four commando brigades of the Turkish army were part of a project aimed at transforming them into all-volunteer, professional units, while in July the government announced the launch of a newproject conceived to train and equip professional units to patrol borders.

But the year also highlighted a persistent and fundamental gap in defense procurement: While in previous years, Turkey mainly focused on the modernization of its Air Force, 2010’s increased clashes with PKK highlighted the lack of land forces-based military assets. The effectiveness of PKK attacks led the politico-military establishment to urgently close a second, new contract for the purchase of nine T-129 attack helicopters from AgustaWestland, to be delivered in 2012: The fact that Turkey will have to wait more than one year to have its helicopters delivered shows the short-sightedness of defense procurement, especially when considering that the previous contract with AgustaWestland, signed in 2007 and still being implemented, agreed to bring 50 new helicopters – but only by 2014.

PKK resilience and strategic initiative

PKK launched its first attacks in 1984: the 26-year conflict has caused about 45,000 casualties. A major blow to the group was dealt in 1999, when its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured while on the run, after being forced to flee his safe haven in Syria. However, the turmoil caused by Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 provided a safe environment for PKK to re-group and re-organize: since then, it has gained new strength and power – extending its network on European soil; creating broadcasting platforms for propaganda purposes; and securing new means of funding.

In 2010, it launched an impressive number of effective attacks against Turkish troops, infrastructures and cities: At the peak of its eight month-long campaign, PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire at the beginning of Ramadan, subsequently extending it until 2011’s Turkish general elections. The ceasefire has been mainly respected by PKK, although a few attacks were carried out, and it did not refrain TAK from attacking a police post in Istanbul in October.

The winter period has traditionally produced a lull in PKK attacks, and this winter is no exception. In the coming months, however, the solidity of the ceasefire will be tested again. Turkish military operations continue, but the momentum is still on PKK’s side.

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